In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnography of Communication

  • Introduction
  • Intellectual Background
  • Formative Works
  • Anthologies
  • Encyclopedia Entries and Reviews of Literature
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • Methodology

Communication Ethnography of Communication
Donal Carbaugh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0015


The ethnography of communication was initially proposed as a program of research in 1962 by Dell Hymes. Since then it has developed into a comprehensive philosophy, theory, and methodology for systematically investigating communication practice. The guiding questions ask about the culturally distinctive means of communication and their meanings to the participants who use them. On the one hand, ethnographers of communication ask what means or media of communication people use in contexts. These may include words, images, and sounds; specific channels, including oral, print, electronic, face-to-face, and the Internet; or any combination thereof. A related question asks what the meanings of these means of communication are for the people who use them. The basic philosophy is an investigative one that explores the particularity and diversity of communication practices in social contexts; the theory provides a range of concepts for understanding sociocultural lives as a complex system of communication practices; the methodology includes stringent criteria for generating various types of data based upon observational field research, various types of interviewing, and archival data, among other sources; methods for analyzing data include rigorous attention to descriptive, interpretive, and comparative procedures, each with its own set of techniques. A key and essential aspect of this type of research is interpretive inquiry that focuses analysts’ attention on the participants’ meanings of the communication they produce.

Intellectual Background

The ethnography of communication was developed at the juncture of several intellectual traditions, including anthropology, linguistics, ordinary language philosophy, and rhetoric. The approach was based upon earlier works. Later works were devoted to the study of uses of language in context, yet each did so in its own way. Of particular relevance are the field-based studies in anthropology and linguistics, such as Boas 1966, Sapir 1921, and Whorf 1956, which explore in an empirical way how specific peoples use language in distinctive ways and how each peoples’ distinctive uses create a particular view of the world. Sapir 1968 discusses how communication, rather than static structures, is the lifeblood of society. In ordinary language philosophy, Austin 1962 and Wittgenstein 1953 focus on the actions performed when language is used in context. Rhetoricians like Kenneth Burke were treating language use as a site of human motivation, and Burke 1966 treats it as symbolic activity. Richards 1936, like Burke, studies systems of terms and the ways these create a “screening” or filtering of meanings.

  • Austin, John L. 1962. How to do things with words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Austin’s book was groundbreaking in arguing the idea that speech is a form of action. Based upon this idea, abstractions about linguistic structure give way to language usage and the activity it performs. This idea ran counter to earlier conceptions that language was basically an abstract system, something used to describe reality, or that it could be understood primarily through its syntactical forms.

  • Boas, Franz. 1966. Introduction. In Introduction to Handbook of American Indian languages by Franz Boaz and Indian linguistic families of America north of Mexico by J. W. Powell. Edited by Preston Holder, 1–79. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Franz Boas is considered by many to be the founder of modern anthropology as well as of American anthropology. He was instrumental in advocating scientific field research over abstract conjecture as a basis for theorizing. In this introduction to language, Boas makes evident the variety in natural languages, including the surprising ways each may differ from others. Originally published in 1911.

  • Burke, Kenneth. 1935. Permanence and change: An anatomy of purpose. New York: New Republic.

    A formative book of Burkean thought that introduces central ideas about language as a symbolic activity. Some of these ideas include how motives can be understood as verbal descriptions of situations and how an orientation is a system of terms and functions that not only enables thinking in some ways but also limits it in others.

  • Burke, Kenneth. 1966. Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This is a collection of some of Burke’s most important essays. The chapter “Definition of Man” explicates the human condition as one of a symbol-using (and -misusing) animal; others explore how language action creates terministic screens for experiencing and rendering the world. A provocative classic, “What Are the Signs of What,” examines relations between words and things, playfully reversing the relationship and treating things as the signs of words.

  • Richards, I. A. 1936. The philosophy of rhetoric. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In this book Richards discusses how rhetoric is the study of “misunderstanding and its remedies.” This study is attentive to a context in its broader sense of local and historical meanings, with these understood as the “interinanimation of words.” In that phrase he locates meanings in the concerted play among words, phrases, and larger parts of discourse.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

    A student of Franz Boas at Columbia University, Sapir presents in this book an accessible introduction to language and speaking. In his research he examined indigenous languages in North America, linked the study of language to anthropology, influenced the Chicago school of sociology while at the University of Chicago, and later, with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, strongly linked language use to systems of thinking.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1968. Communication. In International encyclopedia of the social sciences. Vol. 4. Edited by David L. Sills, 78–81. New York: Macmillan.

    This brief article written in 1931 presents an easily readable introduction to the idea that society can be understood not solely on the basis of abstract social structures but in the everyday speech of people. The reading establishes the importance of speaking as an activity in its own right and a social force that is variably related to cultures and human thought.

  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language. In Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll, 134–159. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    This chapter discusses how human thinking is related to linguistic routines. Whorf shows how “fashions of speech” are formative of ways of thinking and demonstrates how different languages contain different categories of thought and thus how ways of speaking and routine living vary across speech communities. Originally published in 1939.

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.

    One of the most influential books in philosophy in the 20th century. In it Wittgenstein argues “nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity” (p. 693). His alternate idea is that meaning is in the use of a language, with uses being understandable within the games people play with languages. This is an engaging book for various audiences, from beginners to experts.

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